Disappearances, Clandestine Graves on Rise in El Salvador

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Reports of disappearances and discoveries of hidden graves in El Salvador have risen substantially so far in 2013 compared to 2012, supporting the theory that gangs may be hiding dead bodies to protect the credibility of the country’s gang truce.

According to the Salvadoran National Police (PNC), 150 people were reported missing in the first two months of 2013 — 99 more than over the same period in 2012, reported Prensa Grafica.

The police statistics also show an 81 percent increase in the number of bodies found hidden in shallow graves over the period, up to 20 from 11 in the same period last year. Forensic testing revealed that nine of the victims were murdered in 2012 and the rest in the first months of 2013.

Overall, 185 people were murdered in the first two months of 2013 — less than half the number in the same period in 2012. However, murders are up 12 percent since December, and according to police analysis, murders linked to the gangs have risen 59 percent compared to the last two months of 2012.

According to police figures, the vast majority of gang murders were linked to Barrio 18 or the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13).

The government-organized truce between Barrio 18 and MS-13 — the country’s principal street gangs — that led to the overall drop in murder rate has been in place since March 2012.

InSight Crime Analysis

Registration of disappearances in El Salvador was patchy before the start of the gang truce and has become highly politically sensitive since, making it difficult to draw accurate conclusions from the statistics. It is similarly difficult to use the discovery of hidden graves as an accurate indicator, as it is not known what proportion have been found, and how many remain hidden.

Nevertheless, critics of the gang truce, such as the head of the National Assembly’s Security Committee, Ernesto Angulo, have used the apparent increase in disappearances to suggest the gangs have been hiding bodies to artificially keep the murder rate down and lend credibility to the truce.

This is a distinct possibility given the gangs’ habit of burying bodies in clandestine cemeteries, but it is extremely difficult to prove. However, the rise in disappearances comes at a time that the murder rate is creeping up, reports have suggested the gangs continue to expand their criminal activities, and there have been accusations that opponents of the truce are being targeted. This broader context builds up a worrying picture that calls into question the effectiveness of the truce and is increasing the pressure on the government of President Mauricio Funes.

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